Some Reflections on Mark Jones’ “Reformed Catholicity”

Those who identify with Reformed theology are not often known to be the most charitable to opposing viewpoints, to say the least. In fact, pejorative terms like “TR” (Truly Reformed) are thrown around carelessly to describe those who are seen as too narrowly Confessional, or those who would prefer to first identify with their small slice of an even smaller theological tradition within Christianity than with the broader Protestant church around the world.

I have never felt that such a narrow Confessionalism, which leaves large swathes of brothers and sisters outside of the fold, was what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for the unity of the church (John 17:21). After all, the Apostles’ Creed ends, not with a belief in the holy Reformed church, but an affirmation of the holy catholic church (a reference in the Creed and this post to the “universal” church across space and time, and not to the Roman Catholic Church).

As someone who identifies with both the Reformed tradition and the broader evangelical movement (call me a Reformed “catholic” if you wish), I was pleasantly surprised to read Mark Jones’ recent article on the resurgence of “Reformed catholicity.” I have nothing to disagree with in his post, so I offer the following not as a criticism, but rather as a reflection on what helped him become more catholic and what might help others do the same.

If I’m reading Jones correctly, he notes two main experiences that helped him see that “to be truly Reformed, in [his] view, is to be a Reformed catholic.”

First, Jones notes how the Reformed tradition itself is diverse:

We must admit: our tradition has lots of diversity. Lots. And this diversity is present in the way our Confessions were formed, if one reads them carefully

The diversity he mentions is of course different from the diversity we speak of on this site. He speaks of a theological diversity; we speak of an ethno-racial one. In a previous article, Jones writes how his PhD studies revealed a striking theological diversity and charity among Reformed theologians that is absent from modern debaters who are too quick to label opponents as outside the fold.

Second, Jones notes how visiting Christians in South Africa, China, Brazil, and elsewhere helped give him a different perspective.

I can only speak for myself on this matter, but visiting South Africa, China, Brazil, and other lesser-known parts of the world (e.g., Holland), has been good for me. I have spent a lot of time with godly Christian men and women who do not quite have their theology as precise as Reformed confessionalists do here in North America. But when you see their basic love for the Lord, their desire to exalt Christ, and their joy that their sins are forgiven and that God has given them his Holy Spirit, you tend to gain a different perspective compared to those who perhaps spend a little too much time in one place with those who agree with them on almost everything.

To that I can only give a hearty, “Amen!” He ends with a sort of exhortation or recommendation for those who are more proudly “TR” than “catholic”:

I’d love for some of the “hotter sort” of seminarians visit Christians in other countries; it may be more valuable for their theological and pastoral development than most of the PT classes they take.

To that I would add the following:

  • Visit your Christian neighbors right here in America who come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The experience that Jones had when visiting Christians in other countries is what minority Christians often experience on a day-to-day basis. To speak from my own experience of going to seminary, I was initially struck by how so many of my brothers and sisters who came from mono-cultural backgrounds could not see how their bi-cultural classmates could disagree with their understanding of theology and church practice. They were surprised by the diversity, while those of us who grew up in bi-cultural settings saw it as second-nature. For many of us, simply attending seminary and learning from teachers who came from the same background (mostly white American) was analogous to what Jones may have felt in China, for example.

I only have personal anecdotes to back up this claim, but I think it’s noteworthy that most Reformed minorities I’ve interacted with lean more towards being catholic than TR. Both theological and ethno-racial diversity hits minorities in the face, and the Reformed catholicity that Jones learned gradually through his studies is often demanded of us before we have a chance to respond. When we see the discrepancies between the church practices cherished by our ethno-racial heritage and what is taught by majority-culture churches, we have no choice but to accept that the church is much broader than we grew up believing.

We would all benefit much from spending significant time among brothers and sisters in Christ who look different from us. We no longer need to take a plane overseas to do this; there are many churches around us filled with people from all nations!

  • Understand how your cultural upbringing or experience has influenced your theology.

As a Korean-American Christian, I can see very easily how Korean culture has influenced the Korean church. The way we pray, the way we shepherd, the way we respect elders – all of these have been profoundly influenced by our shared history and experience. This is just as true for those from Western backgrounds, though they may not see this as readily. Our experience shapes our theology, and this is not to be feared, but embraced.

Who would deny that Calvin’s experience of exile in Geneva influenced his magisterial work on the Psalms of Lament? Who would deny that Luther’s existential crises had an impact on his need for theological certainty? What is true for Reformed minorities is true for all Christians. Understanding how your cultural upbringing has influenced your theology and church practice will help loosen your grip on a narrow Confessionalism that is unwilling to embrace the diversity of the universal church.

If Philip Jenkins is right and the frontline of Christian ministry is really moving to the East, then we must all be ready for the increasing diversity (both ethno-racial and theological) of the global church. If Reformed Christians in the West wish to serve the global church, they must be willing to adopt a Reformed catholicity that is quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).

At the same time, I agree with Jones that a Reformed catholicity should not mean theological compromise. As Jones notes, Reformed theologians like John Owen and Charles Hodge were much more charitable than many who identify as TR today, and yet they held strongly to their convictions. The global church will not be served by those who are unwilling to acknowledge or embrace diversity, but neither will she be served by those who compromise on the essentials of the faith or those who believe theological distinctives are unimportant.

Brothers and sisters, let us all be eager to maintain the unity of the bond of peace (Eph 4:3) while holding fast the confession of our hope without wavering (Heb 10:23). Too many today are less than eager to maintain unity, and far too many are quick to waver in their confession.

Mark Jeong

Mark was born in South Korea, but grew up in the humble state of New Jersey. Mark's passion is to grow in his love for God and his neighbor as he learns to read both the Bible and the world in light of each other. He and his wife currently reside in New York City.

4 thoughts on “Some Reflections on Mark Jones’ “Reformed Catholicity”

  • November 12, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Hi Mark,

    Your post (and Jones’ post) really resonated with me, because I consider myself “catholic,” and I definitely see a narrow, I-only-listen-to-Reformed-people attitude as a problem in our circles. But this always raises a big question for me: where do we draw the line here?

    We should first probably distinguish several questions which could be conflated: (1) who should I listen to/interact with charitably on theological issues? (2) How should we draw the boundaries for what is acceptable in our particular ecclesiastical body? (3) How should we interact with Christian’s from other ecclesiastical bodies/which churches count as true churches/who should be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ vs. unbelievers?

    My frustration with Jones’ article is that most of the characters from church history he cited seemed to have a broader definition of (1) than many today, but they would probably have had a much narrower conception of (3), and might in some cases at least have drawn the lines differently when it comes to (2). It seems easy to argue for broad charity in the case of (1) [after all, I can learn even from total pagans, right?], but (2) and (3) are where the rubber meets the road.

    All this to say, I like that you say we should be catholic while also not compromising. I am curious, though, to hear more about how we should work out the balance between these. While not denying that TRness is a problem, it seems to me that it is a bit relative: we all do our best to figure out the wise place to draw the lines, but a person who draws them slightly more narrowly will look TR to us, while we look like a compromiser to him, but then to the guy who draws the lines more broadly, we look TR… you get where I am going with this. And because we all are more or less sensitive to different theological issues, depending on our backgrounds, interest, and often time invested in studying them, how “TR” we are willing to be on a given issue will vary from person to person.

    It seems like the church will constantly mean negotiating pressure to broaden and pressure to narrow these standards. I mean, just take women’s ordination for instance. There is a lot of pressure to broaden these standards [I mean in terms of (2), allowing ordination of people who hold to women’s ordination], and there has also been pressure to narrow [i.e., women deacons have been acceptable in the Reformed tradition historically speaking, but are suddenly not]. How should the church work through this sort of conflict wisely?

    • November 15, 2015 at 10:19 am

      Hey Jamie,

      Thanks for your comment! And sorry for taking so long to respond. I’ll try to address your questions as best as I can.

      I think the categories you listed are helpful in thinking through how we “draw the line.” I also think when people navigate the too-TR vs. compromising question, they often think only in terms of one or more of the questions you listed. So for example, in writing this post, I was primarily thinking in terms of categories 1 & 3 – “who should I listen to with charity on theological issues?” And “How should we interact with Christians from other ecclesiastical bodies?”

      The first question is the easiest – I think we should listen to everyone! Of course that doesn’t mean we accept everyone’s views, but we should be willing to not only listen, but also learn from them. So many TR brothers I’ve met are unwilling to do this. They will listen only so they can go on the attack. They don’t see themselves as needing correction in any way.

      To give a concrete example, I think this means those who are TR or Reformed catholic should listen to their baptist brothers, who (in my opinion) are much better at doing certain things such as missions and evangelism. We have much to learn from them.

      In regards to your third question, I think this goes back to the age old question of what issues are primary and which are secondary? Like you said, people will disagree here, but I do think there is general agreement within the evangelical church about the primary issues. Most would say those who have faith in Christ and affirm a biblical gospel are brothers and sisters. It’s not possible to lay out in detail how we should interact with Christians from other ecclesiastical bodies, because different ecclesiastical bodies are.. different! So we can’t generalize. I think for those whom we call brothers and sisters, at the very least we should be willing to fellowship with them, pray with them, and work together for the advance of the gospel (through sharing of resources, mutual encouragement, etc.).

      I think people can become too TR in regards to question 3 when they start declaring that certain brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary issues are not saved. OR if they don’t go that far, they might say that members of other bodies are less enlightened, and that if only everyone else agreed with them, the church would be better off. I think a lot of it does have to do with the attitude you bring to these kinds of discussions.

      What does it mean to compromise then? It depends on the situation. In regards to question 2, I think compromise would mean acting as though these secondary issues, while secondary, are unimportant. I’ve seen this happen on the mission field, where baptists and paedobaptists will say that baptism is not important, and that they should not hold strongly to their convictions for the sake of planting churches together. I think this is the wrong way to go. We should be able to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree, while still holding firmly to our own convictions. As soon as we start saying, “Well, this isn’t that important, can’t we just all get along and not talk about this?” – then we’re beginning to compromise. I’m often reminded of the friendship that Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever share. Duncan knows that Dever’s theological convictions mean that Duncan hasn’t ever been baptized. Duncan, out of care and love and respect for his brother’s views, won’t take the Lord’s Supper when at Dever’s church. I know they would also link arms in prayer together, but they would never plant a church together.

      I do agree that being the church in this age will mean negotiating between the pressure to broaden and narrow these standards. Like you said, people will be more or less sensitive to different theological issues depending on their backgrounds, so there will never be one definitive way of drawing the lines. It may be that the issue between being too TR and being too catholic is less something you can write down and more something you just know when you see it. When my TR friends refuse to read books by baptists or start saying men like John Piper are “dangerous” for their views on continuationism, I think that’s overly narrow.

      I’m still thinking through this stuff as well, so I appreciate the chance to dialogue! How should the church work through these sorts of conflict wisely? I think “with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That doesn’t mean we compromise by holding loosely to our convictions or pretending as though these issues are not important, but it does mean we open ourselves to correction and trust that God is working by his Spirit through the church (and not just one small segment of it). As soon as we stop listening, we’ve become too TR. As soon as we say the dialogue/debate should end and we should just get on with doing the real work of ministry, we may have begun to compromise..

  • November 13, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Mark and Dr. Duguid–

    There are certainly difficult implications to all obedience. Ecclesiastical applications can become particularly difficult. I do wonder if a simple acknowledgement of the diversity of opinions and practices that in the past AND currently exist faithfully within our confessing churches might be a good start toward a more catholic spirit. Are some of these differences able to be reconciled through prayer, study, encouragement, or even correction and discipline. Sure. As a TR myself, I do share the concerns raised in Jones’ article. I think both those who want a narrower confession (Recovering THE Reformed Confession, some of the micro-presbys, some Dutch varieties) and those who want to broaden the confession (FV, latitudinarian, women’s ordination, anti-inerrancy) could benefit from the “honor your fathers and mothers” footing of the new breed of so-called Reformed catholicity.

    Blessings in Christ, as we seek to honor him,

    • November 15, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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